When reporters circled around Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale at the Liberal cabinet retreat on Friday and asked him to respond to Beijing’s dark warning about Huawei, he was always going to rebuff them. There wasn’t much choice.
The Chinese ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, had told reporters the day before that there would be “repercussions” if Justin Trudeau’s government decided to ban Huawei equipment from next-generation 5G networks.
That came on top of Mr. Lu saying that Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou was backstabbing, and after China detained two Canadians and increased the drug-trafficking sentence of another Canadian from 15 years in jail to death.
In other words, China was already turning the screw over Ms. Meng’s arrest, and Mr. Lu threw a warning about Huawei’s business interests into the mix.
If you’re a Canadian politician like Mr. Goodale, you don’t have much choice but to rebuff those warnings, to insist that Canada won’t compromise national security when it decides whether to allow the Chinese company into its next-generation networks. Then, Mr. Trudeau weighed in later on Friday to say we should worry “when a country like China starts to mix commercial interests with the imprisonment of a citizen of another country.”
We can now wait for the next round of hissing from Beijing.
There’s no doubt now that Canada-China relations are locked in a downward spiral, apparently doomed to get worse.
It started with Ms. Meng’s arrest, but the decision on banning Huawei from 5G is coming due within weeks or months. And Mr. Trudeau can’t really split with Canada’s Five Eyes allies – the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
It’s a recipe for a festering dispute. At the moment, Canada and China aren’t really talking to each other about it except through rhetoric.
The Opposition has called for Prime Minister Trudeau to call Chinese President Xi Jinping to cool the dispute, but that could cause an already-intransigent Beijing to dig in – which is why John McCallum, the Canadian ambassador to China, said in a TV interview that such a call is the “last arrow in the quiver.”
So, the Trudeau government plans to build support among other countries and argue that China’s actions will harm its companies’ image. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and other Canadian government figures will take that case to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week.
There’s another part of the plan: to take the case that the dispute has gone too far to senior Chinese leaders – not Mr. Xi, but the circle around him.
One such figure will be in Davos. Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan is slated to lead the Chinese delegation, and although he is not ranked as one of Beijing’s most senior leaders – he stepped down from the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2017 – he is personally close to Mr. Xi.
But even then, it’s not at all clear that any of those things will defuse the tensions.
Ten or 15 years ago, Canada’s disputes with China didn’t freeze everything. In 2001, Chinese President Jiang Zemin berated Prime Minister Jean Chrétien when Canada did not return accused smuggling and corruption kingpin Lai Changxing, who fought extradition, but it didn’t hobble the relationship.
Now Mr. Xi, who promised a more assertive China on the world stage, has taken a more aggressive approach – but one that seems to have no exit.
He is flexing superpower muscle – but it really does risk damage to the image of Chinese business.
Huawei’s corporate PR won’t benefit from the idea that its phone business is tied to detentions and executions. That has to clash with the upbeat TV commercials. Beijing appears to be telling countries around the world that Huawei is making them an offer they can’t refuse.
And Mr. Trudeau has no choice but to refuse. He can’t cut Ms. Meng loose – it would not only be a breach of the rule of law, it would now be political suicide. He can’t make a decision on 5G that clashes with Five Eyes allies – and he now faces even more political pressure to show he is not bending to Beijing’s will. The downward dynamic of the relationship is locked in and only Mr. Xi can change it.